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The AC-130 Gunship -- Fire In The Sky

An Aircraft With Intimidating Weapons

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An Air Force Special Forces AC-130 gunship in an undated photo, which was used by the U.S. military to attack targets around the Taliban of Kandahar a senior defense official said October 15, 2001. The four-engine turbo-prop aircraft was used for the first time October 15 in the nine-day air campaign against Taliban military and guerrilla training camps in Afghanistan.
U.S. Air Force / Getty Images

Boasting a lethal number of mini-guns, cannons and howitzers, the AC-130 Gunship has earned a reputation as one of the deadliest combat weapons on the planet.

A Transport Plane with Firepower

The AC-130 is a modified version of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s C-130 transport plane. The aircraft gets its intimidating array of weapons from The Boeing Company, which is responsible for converting the transport plane into a gunship. The AC-130 is used in combat missions to provide support to other aircraft and soldiers fighting on the ground.

The U.S. Air Force is the only user of the AC-130 Gunship. The aircraft comes in two variants known as "Sceptre" and "Spooky." With a flight crew of 13 Air Force personnel and weapons ranging from 25 millimeter Gatling guns to 105 millimeter howitzers, the AC-130 has a reputation for delivering punishing assaults in combat zones.

In addition to its firepower, the AC-130 gunship has proved popular with the U.S. Air Force because of its ability to operate in adverse weather conditions and for long periods at night. Equipped with high-tech sensors, scanners and radar, the aircraft is able to distinguish between allied forces and enemy troops from great distances. This makes the AC-130’s accuracy one of the best among conventional military aircraft.

A Legacy that Began in Vietnam

The current model of the AC-130 Gunship has been used to fight enemy combatants in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. However, the aircraft got its start in the Vietnam War. The U.S. Air Force first developed the gunship to provide support to fighter jets and ground soldiers conducting missions in Laos and South Vietnam.

From its inception in 1967, the AC-130 Gunship proved extremely capable and popular – destroying, by some estimates, more than 10,000 enemy ground vehicles and thousands of enemy aircraft. Within a year of coming into service, there were enough AC-130 Gunships in Vietnam to form a squadron. The first AC-130 squadron was called the 16th Special Operations Squadron and went by the acronym "S.O.S."

More recently, the AC-130 Gunship has been used to provide firepower and support during the invasion of Panama in 1989, the first Gulf War in 1991, and present day operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Africa. The AC-130 Gunship has been used recently to remove al-Qaeda militants from difficult mountain terrain.

Upgrading to More Firepower

The AC-130 Gunship has been criticized for being too heavily armed and providing an overwhelming display of force. However, the Air Force Special Operations Command has moved in recent years to add more firepower to the aircraft.

In 2007, the U.S. Air Force announced that it wants to upgrade and add to the armaments on the AC-130 Gunship. There are plans to possibly replace the aircraft’s howitzers with 120 millimeter mortars and Hellfire missiles. There have also been discussions about adding Viper Strike Glide Bombs and an Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System to the aircraft. Taken together, these additions would make the AC-130 Gunship an even more formidable piece of weaponry.

The U.S. Air Force has stated that it will begin a process in 2011 to purchase 16 new gunships. The new gunships will be Lockheed Martin C-130J transport planes modified to include what the military has called a "precision strike package." The U.S. Air Force has said that it will spend $1.6 billion to acquire the additional gunships between 2011 and 2015. With the new additions, the U.S. Air Forces’ fleet of gunships is expected to number 33 aircraft.

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